“You couldn’t take this photo today because they wouldn’t let anyone get that close to the track.”
— Mike Sweeney referencing his 1989 JVDB photo from Unadilla.
- Date: July 9, 1989
- Race: 250cc United States Grand Prix
- Rider: John van den Berk, defending FIM 250cc World Motocross Champion
- Venue: Unadilla Valley Sports Center New Berlin, NY
- Photographer: Mike Sweeney
- Equipment: Nikon F2 / 28mm lens. Shot on Ektachrome film
In 1989, Sweeney was a stringer for his local newspaper. He was a cunning 26-year-old who would trade photographs for press passes at Celtics and Red Sox games. The memories he has from the sidelines watching Larry Bird warm up are priceless. A fine arts photo major in college, he also rode moto as a kid growing up in New England. After attending the Southwick Motocross National a couple of times as a spectator, he showed up in 1989 with a homemade press pass, designed and laminated, “and they let me in!” he says, laughing.
He sent the chromes to Motocross Action and Dirt Bike and got an encouraging enough response to keep going to races. Six weeks after Southwick, Sweeney showed up at the 250cc USGP, which fell one week prior to the final round of the AMA 250cc motocross finale (Ed. note: can you imagine this today?).
Sweeney remembers showing up on a Thursday and seeing an already rowdy crowd in the field across the street from the racetrack. He saw a man in a sports car pull into the lot and get into an altercation with a partygoer. The man was torn from the vehicle and watched helplessly as his automobile was used to spin donuts in the grass before being driven into a nearby pond. “It wasn’t really a safe place,” Sweeney says. “There was so much drinking, water balloon battles and people shooting bottle rockets at each other.” That weekend, while camping across the valley from the rowdy parking lot, Sweeney said he woke up at 2:00 a.m. and watched for an hour at what looked like a scene from the movie “Apocalypse Now”.
Sweeney made his way to the pits where he saw Rick Johnson holding court and entertaining a crowd of people. It was Sweeney’s first trip to Unadilla and he was eager to see the infamous valley racecourse. He vividly recalls the bright field of green with knee high grass, lined with stakes and string. “I remember wondering where the hell the track was!”
The featured photo is from the second moto of the 250 class where John van den Berk, the two-time World Champion from the Netherlands, finished second to Rick Johnson. Jumping out of Unadilla’s Gravity Cavity, van den Berk’s red and white Yamaha YZ250 with head to toe red and white gear gives a popping contrast to the green valley in the background. If you’re puzzled about the number plate background color, it’s green. On the FIM series, 250cc riders had green backgrounds and white numbers.
To get the shot, Sweeney said he felt like he was doing a dance move, leaning into the track each time he snapped a photo. “I was maybe three to four feet from them.” Before sending the original chromes to MXA he used the equipment at a photo lab, where he worked part time, to make copies of his favorites, including this JVDB shot
A failed ignition left van den Berk with a DNF in the first moto at Unadilla and he finished seventh overall, losing a lot of points to Jean-Michel Bayle who won the world title a few weeks later. Van den Berk finished third overall in the 1989 standings. His career highlights include the two world titles (125cc, 1987) and nine GP victories.
Sweeney still shoots at select east coast races and some of his work is featured on his Instagram feed @sweeneyphoto. His newest venture is Ascend Design, a digital consulting, design and media company he started in metro Boston.